Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.
3/5 stars
Executive Summary: Parts may be confusing and unhelpful to most people. Other parts are especially helpful to managers, marketers, shoppers, and people who like following politics. If you see this book in a store, your optimal decision would be to read chapter 6 and put the book back on the shelf.

Review: The field of neuroeconomics is really picking up, and I am excited to learn even more about what happens in the brain that relates to our behavior. This book tries to string together some captivating anecdotes with modern research to explain how we make decisions. Though often interesting and on the mark, passages are also often poorly presented, and concepts misinterpreted by the author.

My biggest complaint for the first few chapters was Lehrer's vocabulary. He seemed to use the word "emotion" to describe a dozen distinct phenomena, including conditioned behavior. He also often refers to thoughts as "rational" and "conscious" that are not. I believe that Lehrer tried to write a book that would tackle an assumed false dichotomy of "rational thought" versus "emotions" as the best way to make decisions, then demonstrate that each is appropriate in different situations and we use a combination of both. Unfortunately, he lumps together many different processes under those two labels, and confuses what is otherwise a good set of information to give people.

For example: chapter 4 tells a great story about a firefighter who saves his own life by ignoring fear and thinking through a problem. Chapter 5 then tries to make the point that using too much rational thought reduces performance (often true), but does so with a story about an opera singer whose performance is hurt by irrational thoughts spurred on by fear. The anecdote did not match the point that Lehrer's narrative was trying to make.

Another example: Lehrer repeatedly refers to a few studies on people's preferences for jams. A study shows that people end up picking a jam that they don't really like after they think about how the jam rates on some features that are not necessarily important to the people. Rating a jam high on unimportant features subconsciously tricked the people into thinking they favored that jam, even though another jam rated higher on the features they really cared about. Lehrer says that this is an example of how too much self-analysis causes us to make poor decisions. It is really an example of how too little self-analysis causes poor decisions. The people were over-analyzing the jams, not themselves. If they analyzed their own preferences more, they would have been more likely to weight each jam feature's rating based on their preferences, and choose the jam they'd be most happy with.

Chapter 6 really accurately describes a lot of critical decision-making processes and biases. This chapter reads like a handbook of how to monitor your own biases and check what other people tell you for how their biases are affecting them. Doctors, political pundits, and other "esteemed" people are not immune to the natural processes that distort our perceptions and impair our decisions. There's a footnote endorsing Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that I think should have at least gotten it's own chapter. Lehrer notably did not deeply address racism or other uses of sterotypes (feelings) to discriminate.

Content summary and clarification:
* Sometimes you should follow your "gut reaction". ("I don't know art, but I know what I like.")
* If you've trained hard at doing a task, and paid attention to why you succeeded or failed each time during training, trust your training (basal ganglia) and don't overthink.
* Know yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Monitor outcomes to your decisions.
* Don't Panic (or get enraged, or get engrossed in hopelessness)
* Know the difference between correlation and causation. Understand probability.

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